New prison marathon documentary chronicles San Quentin's 1,000 Mile Club

26.2 To Life, by San Francisco filmmaker Christine Yoo, documents the story of the San Quentin Marathon–a marathon that takes place every November inside the walls of a maximum-security prison, and which, for several men, has represented a path to rehabilitation and a new life. The film opens in U.S. theatres on Sept. 22.The club, which evolved sometime after a small group of volunteer coaches were given permission to start a running club in the prison 16 years ago, is called the 1,000 Mile Club–the idea being that interested inmates could rack up 1,000 miles during their period of incarceration.

The club’s leader is volunteer coach Frank Ruona, a veteran of 78 marathons (including many Boston Marathon finishes) and 38 ultras. Other regular volunteers include Western States Endurance Run board president Diana Fitzpatrick and popular ultrarunner Dylan Bowman.The film documents the 2018 San Quentin Marathon, which involves 105 laps of the prison yard–a combination of gravel, pavement and dirt, with six 90-degree turns in each loop. Twice, that year’s marathon was delayed–once by wildfires in the area, and once by deaths in the prison due to drug overdoses. Sometimes the race itself is interrupted by alarms. When an alarm sounds, everyone in the yard must drop to the ground. The first time an alarm sounds during the 2018 marathon, the men are sitting on the ground for seven minutes.

Then the race resumes.As he does every year, the club’s fastest runner, Markelle Taylor (nicknamed “The Gazelle”), won the race. As it happened, Taylor’s sentence was commuted the same year, and he went on to run the 2019 Boston Marathon as a charity runner, finishing in 3:03–a nearly seven-minute personal best.

San Quentin is a Level 4 maximum security prison, and many of the men depicted in the film are serving life sentences for murder. Each describes what led to their incarceration, but Ruona says he’s not interested in their crimes–he will lend an ear if an inmate wants to talk, but he does not ask what brought them to San Quentin. He is simply there to help–and to be a witness to the transformative power of running to change lives that are sometimes without hope. “I just feel like I am my brother’s keeper,” Ruona says, citing an Old Testament verse about Cain and Abel. “If he needs help, I’m gonna try and help him.”At the time the film was made, another runner, Tommy Wickerd, had been sober and gang-free for 18 years, and had recently completed his high school diploma. He applied for a commutation of his sentence, but never got a response.

His earliest possible release date is in 2053; he will be 86 when he gets out. But he’s philosophical. His wife, Marian, is determinedly loyal, and he has a son with whom he has a strong relationship. “If I keep running, I’ll be all right,” he says.

26.2 To Life opens in theatres in New York City, the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Seattle on Sept. 22, and there will be a 72-hour virtual premiere from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1. There are currently no screenings scheduled in Canada, but we’ll provide updates if that changes. For more information, consult the film’s website, here. 

posted Saturday September 16th
by Running Magazine